What happens to your brain when you use prescription drugs?

In the brain, neurotransmitters such as dopamine send messages by attaching to receptors on nearby cells. The actions of these neurotransmitters and receptors cause the effects from prescription drugs. Each class of prescription drugs works a bit differently in the brain and can cause actions similar to some illegal drugs:

  • Prescription opioid pain medications bind to molecules on cells known as opioid receptors—the same receptors that respond to heroin. These receptors are found on nerve cells in many areas of the brain and body, especially in brain areas involved in the perception of pain and pleasure.
  • Prescription stimulants, such as Ritalin, have similar effects to cocaine, by causing a buildup of the brain chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine.
  • Prescription depressants make a person feel calm and relaxed in the same manner as the club drugs GHB and rohypnol.

Learn more about how the brain works and what happens when a person misuses drugs.